Shades of pink and purple fan the evening sky as the sun sets on a warm summer day. Glancing at the horizon, you think to yourself, “How beautiful, I can’t wait to tell so and so!” Then, you reach frantically for a phone to capture the image.
Consider a different relationship to the same experience. You soak in the sunset with all your senses. Aware of the warm breeze gliding over your skin, the birds’ song in the distance, the glowing colors merging in the evening sky, you experience the sunset through a direct, felt sense in the body.
Curious how the exact same situation can lead to an entirely different experience?
Researchers have discovered two different brain networks involved in how we relate to our momentary experiences. One is called default network, the other direct experience. Default mode is activated through thinking, while direct experience is felt through awareness. Yes, the mind can do much more than think! The trouble is, thinking tends to overtake our lives, which drives us to do something, anything with most moments of our lives. Thus, we often forget about awareness, the spacious capacity to be that transcends thinking and fuels life with a sense of aliveness and wonder.
Brain Networks and Your Life
Default network is commonly referred to as narrative, or story mode. It’s responsible for forming opinions, planning, and, at times (alright, most of the time) over-thinking. Generally, we spend a lot of our waking lives caught in the story of I, me, or my. We might recount to ourselves how we did on a past project or consider how we’ll perform on an upcoming project. On one hand, the cognitive capacity to plan and analyze is vital and remarkable. On the other, thoughts aren’t the whole story of your life.
There is this other quality called awareness, which is inherently bigger than thinking. This is what’s meant by direct experience. Here, your senses are heightened as you take in the totality of your moment-to-moment experience. You drop below the storyline to experience your life exactly as it is, not how it was or will be. The experience is felt and lived, giving it the chance to deeply penetrate the mind and body.
Let’s practice. At the end of this paragraph, stop reading for just a moment to try what you’re about to read. Gently engage one of your senses. You might shift your awareness to the sense of touch, feeling the air or your clothing softly touching your skin. Or, you might draw your awareness to the sensation of hearing, noticing both subtle and distinct sounds near and far.
Did you notice how awareness can be unclouded by interpretation? Instead, the experience is felt, touched, lived. It’s truly a different way of being in – and knowing – the world.
When in Doubt, Sense it Out
While the default network has its place, we can easily spend too much time caught in self-focused thinking. This becomes increasingly dangerous when it’s negative. Worries amplify, anxiety thickens, and before you know it, nothing in your life is going well. The good news is, research shows you can relieve yourself of an overactive default network by lightly returning your attention to a direct, felt sense of the moment: Feel your feet on the ground, take a deep breath before you answer the phone, or truly taste the first few bites of your meal. It may sound overly simple at first. And yet, this kind of awareness, that is always here, frees us from self-limiting thoughts and imbues life with a sense of wonder, wakefulness and deep appreciation for being alive.
Speaking of wonder, when do you most often catch yourself falling into the default network? What cue might help you return to direct experience? There is so much to learn from each other. Please share your perspective below!